Or What You Will (2020), by Jo Walton, is an at times charming, at times frustrating work of metafiction that reads, even distanced by the novelist’s artifice, as a warmly personal, almost intimate love letter to Florence, the Renaissance, art, reading, the classics, and creativity. I’m guessing it will receive a mixed, varied response from Walton’s readers.
Sylvia Harrison is a mid-range author of a good number of novels, including several set in the quasi-fantastical Illyria — imagine Renaissance Florence with magic where people do not die save by willful intent (their own giving up of life, murder). Or What You Will is narrated by her creative spark, that flame of imagination trapped in her “bone cave” as he’s instilled her creations with the spark of life:
I have been too many things to count. I have been a dragon with a boy on his back … a scholar, a warrior, a lover, and a thief. I have been dream and dreamer. I have been a god. I have stood by the wind-wracked orchard … I am friend to monsters, companion to bees … stormbringer and a stormtamer … I have been a character and I have been a narrator, but now I don’t know what I am.
Though he does know he is fearful. Because Sylvia is dying of cancer, and he worries what will become of him when that happens. He wants her “to make a world for me, for all that I am and could be, for me seen whole, not one where I have to pour as much of myself a will fit into an aspect she has shaped for me.” But Sylvia (yes, they talk to each other) tell him that would be “too meta, nobody would want that … what would it be about?” And you can see the meta nature arising, as this book does turn out to be partially that one. And a new novel set in Illyria (our narrator has plans for that place), though Sylvia worries going back to an old setting will make her seem “senile” to her readers. It’s also Sylvia’s own story, as our narrator tells us how they first met, and what tore them apart so that he was, possibly, dead for years. We hear about her first marriage and its physical and mental abuse, her more successful second marriage, her love of Florence, her grief over the death of her second husband, her fears of dying, her anxiety over what she perhaps sacrificed to become a writer.
So there are three strands at least here: our narrator’s plan to escape the bone cave and get Sylvia into Illyria where she (and thus he) can live forever, Sylvia’s personal history and current day-to-day existence, and the events in Illyria, which involve two characters from our world crossing over and becoming embroiled in family and political drama involving wizards, deposed dukes and their usurpers, vengeance and forgiveness, bad marriages, and more.
But while those are the plot strands, Walton weaves a more layered work than just a tripartite braid. Many of the inhabitants of Illyria, as one might guess from the title, are pulled from Shakespeare: Miranda, Orsino, Caliban. Sebastian, basically the cast and storylines of The Tempest and Twelfth Night. Others are historical figures from Florence’s past. But, given this is Jo Walton, they are also characters in other Walton works. There’s a host of other literary, artistic, and musical allusions as well. There’s a mini-lesson on Florence’s grand dome, the competition to do the baptistry doors, the invention of “bastions.”
Some readers may revel in all these layers. Some may wish they could just read what was going on in Illyria as a straight novel. Some will eat up the meta-references. I found them variably successful. The sections on Sylvia’s history I thought bogged the story down quite a bit. I never really engaged with her fully as a character, and so the heavy emotional aspects didn’t quite hit home with full force, save for a few vividly sharp depictions of her grieving her husband. Another reason they were problematical for me was that they were mostly in summary format and felt a bit plodding stylistically, a sort of “and then and then and then” construction that again made it difficult to connect emotionally.
I can see some readers wishing Walton would have cut all the Florentine art history, but I quite enjoyed those sections, though at times the style felt a little like a cross between a YA non-fiction novel and a middle-school art teacher. That speaking-to-a-young-audience tonal issue ran sporadically throughout the first half to two-thirds of the novel, not only in the sections on art and history.
The meta level was a betwixt and between strand for me. Sometimes the references were overly familiar and too simple, other times I enjoyed the insights, as with the discussion of killing off characters, which isn’t simply focused on Sylvia’s writing but also brings in Tolkien’s death and death/resurrection of Boromir and Gandalf respectively, or of C.S. Lewis’s death and resurrection of Aslan, and then compares those to more modern examples.
Or What You Will isn’t as emotionally powerful as Among Others or as intellectually stimulating as the THESSALY trilogy. It’s a more quirky, highly personal novel that you sort of get the sense Walton doesn’t really care how it’s received or even if it’s out there at all. It feels like a novel she wanted to write, filled with stuff she likes — particular art and food and creative works — and so she did and had a lot of fun doing so. I know authors, including Walton, usually write the novels they want to, but this one feels more like that, if that makes any sense to anyone. I enjoyed most of it, got bogged down in some sections, and felt the ending packed a nice emotional touch which uplifted the overall reading experience. Recommended.